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Leon's Blog

Make a portable privy or ‘How to do number two’ in the woods

Some basic tools can make setting up a portable latrine easy.
Make a portable privy or ‘How to do number two’ in the woods

One of the most intimidating aspects of the outdoors for novice campers or beginners is very basic: Where’s the bathroom? Where will you do Number Two?

by Leon Pantenburg

When you gotta go, you gotta go. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the shopping mall or in the backcountry – when nature calls, you must answer. Generally, if you’re in established permanent campsites, there will be some sort of toilet available, so that’s  probably not an  issue.

If you’re camping, or setting up a campsite, one of the first and most important tasks is to set up the latrine.

Here’s how to build one, using re-cycled or commonly-available stuff. This “technology” has been around Boy Scout and hunting camps for years!

Cultus composting toilet

This composting toilet is located near Cultus Lake, in Central Oregon.

Toilet seat: One of my favorite places to shop for building materials is the local Re-Store, where discounted building materials are for sale, with the proceeds benefiting Habitat For Humanity. Look around – scrap lumber and other things you need are easily found.

Plastic lawn chair with four straight legs: This can be the basis for the “throne.” Cut the middle out of the seat, and replace it with your toilet seat. A box made out of scrape lumber is also popular. Make the height whatever you want. Dig a hole, and place this structure over it. I could have gotten a toilet seat and lawn chair for $5 last week at the Re-Store.

Posts or some sort of uprights to attach tarps: This is the basis for the privacy structure that goes around the throne. Drive the posts in around the toilet structure, and string the tarps on them. Obviously, trees, rocks or whatever can be improvised into the screen. If  stormy weather is possible, you might want to rig a tarp over the whole setup to shed rain.

A shovel and toilet paper (in a waterproof container) are vital aspects of any backcountry privy construction. (Leon Pantenburg photos)

A shovel and toilet paper (in a waterproof container) are vital aspects of any backcountry privy construction. (Leon Pantenburg photos)

Small shovel: Use this to dig the privy hole, and throw the dirt outside. Privy rules state that after each use, a shovelful or two of dirt should be thrown in. This eliminates smells and keeps the privy from attracting flies.

Waterproof  toilet paper holder: This can be a coffee can with a lid, or large plastic bag. You really don’t want the rain to soak the toilet paper.

Your camp will establish its own privy use protocol, but here is one that works.

The shovel and toilet paper container are left on the path to the privy. Participants take these items with them as they go to use the facilities. When these items are gone, that is a sign the toilet is occupied. All campers, when within hearing distance of the privy call out.

Once everything is done, the participant uses the shovel  to toss some dirt in the hole. Then, all the implements are returned to the path for the next person.

When it’s time to move camp, the structure can easily be removed and the hole filled in.

Building a privy structure is easy, and doesn’t take much time. In addition to keeping your camp more sanitary, the privy is also a comforting thing to newcomers. It can also provide one more familiar aspect to an unfamiliar environment.

Editor’s Note: Here’s a quick backcountry toilet story:

In 1977, I was about four days into a 14-day backpacking solo through the Thoroughfare Creek area of Yellowstone’s backcountry. I hadn’t seen another person in two days, and the frequent bear tracks on the trail were making me really edgy. I got to the established campsite that evening, and found a nice picnic table, a brand new, immaculate Porta Potty and enough fresh bear prints to scare the crap out of me.

It was approaching dusk, so moving on was out of the question. I ate supper quickly and hung everything on the bear bag racks. But I still had to find a safe place to sleep.

A strong smell of antiseptic hung around the toilet. Reasoning that the smell would cover up my scent, I went inside the Porta Potty and twisted the latch to “occupied.” I got into my sleeping bag, sat down on the closed toilet seat, and leaned up against the wall to sleep. I dozed and slept fitfully until dawn, awaking at every imagined noise.

This story would be better if I had heard bears moving around all night, but thankfully, I didn’t hear a thing!

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View Comments (4)


  1. Leon

    11/02/2014 at 22:21

    All things considered, it was a great place to spend the night!

  2. Leon

    11/02/2014 at 22:20

    Nice words and good feedback – Thanks!

  3. Sideliner1950

    10/31/2014 at 10:06

    Nice setup. I was introduced to the “TP in the coffee can concept” almost 30 years ago on my first rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, and the method is still employed by that rafting company. With 25 people on each trip, it’s important to have a system that works.

    A couple of suggestions, based on our rafting trip experiences:

    1- If there will be others besides just yourself using the facility, consider establishing a “waiting area” (along with, if possible, a hand-washing station) close to your camp where you leave the coffee can (w/TP inside) when you’re done. The presence of the coffee can in the “waiting area” signals that the facility is (probably) vacant and available for use by the next person. (Remember to bring the coffee can w/TP with you when you go to use the facility, and most importantly to return it to the “waiting area” when you’re done; or else the next person’s wait could be longer than necessary.)

    2- Consider stocking the coffee can both with TP and some antibacterial wet-wipe packs, whether or not a wash station is in use. You just never know.

    Thanks for all you do.

  4. Todd Walker

    10/31/2014 at 09:16

    Figured you would have had a crappy night’s sleep in that thing, Leon. Great story and article!

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Leon's Blog

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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